Dedicated to Nigeria's socio-political issues
October 3, 2007 - December 2, 2007
Military Ranks of the Nigerian Armed Forces
- The History behind those names -
Nowamagbe A. Omoigui
The word rank originated in the 14th century., from the Old French word ranc. "Ranc" itself is of proto-germanic origin from the word khrengaz meaning "circle, ring." The use of the term in the context of a "social position" began around 1430; while the context of "put in order, classify" came into use in 1592. The term 'Rank and file' was first used in 1598, in the context of soldiers marching in formation, but was subsequently generalized to mean "common soldiers" in 1796.
In modern usage, a rank is a title insignia that defines the relative position of soldiers and officers in the military hierarchy. Over the years, particularly in the sixties, observers of Nigerian military affairs may have noticed that ranks may be further qualified by phrases like 'Acting' Brigadier, 'Temporary' Major, 'Substantive' Lt. Colonel, 'Local' Captain, etc. A Substantive rank e.g. S/Major is a legally confirmed and permanent rank with appropriate salary and perks. A Temporary rank e.g. T/Major is one that is conferred for a short period of time, typically for a specific task or mission or to enable maintenance of regimental discipline by allowing a junior officer take on responsibilities that exceed that which otherwise be appropriate for his substantive rank. During the period of rapid Nigerianization in the sixties, for example, this was often a mechanism for dealing with manpower shortage. To allow indigenous Nigerian command of Brigade level formations, Lt. Cols. JTU Aguiyi-Ironsi and Samuel Adesoji Ademulegun were double promoted to the rank of T/Brigadier in 1962. Then Lt. Col. Zak Maimalari followed suit, joining Babatunde Ogundipe as Nigeria's fourth Brigadier. An officer who holds an Acting rank temporarily enjoys the salary and perks of that rank, but can be reverted - without notice - to his previous rank by order. During the civil war, for purposes of carrying out operations in specific locations (or to replace officer casualties) some NCOs and Officers were granted not only Acting ranks but also higher Local ranks, which were temporary like the Acting ranks but - theoretically - unpaid. There have been other situations when such measures were taken. For example, when Brigadier JTU Aguiyi-Ironsi was deployed as Force Commander ONUC in 1964 he was granted the "Local" rank of Major-General in the Congo. He reverted to his substantive rank of Brigadier when he returned to Nigeria.
It is important to distinguish a Rank from an Appointment, even though they can overlap and it is best that persons of appropriate rank fill appointments. When a person of appropriate rank fills a specific office or role or function, it is said to be an appointment. Ranks may evolve into Appointments. Titles may be ranks in some Armies but appointments in others. Some appointments are ceremonial or honorary. In the Canadian military for example, Army titles such as Canadian Forces Chief Warrant Officer, Command Chief Warrant Officer, Chief Warrant Officer of a higher formation, Base Chief Warrant Officer, Trumpet or Bugle or Drum or Pipe Major are actually 'appointments' rather than ranks. In the British Army examples of appointments include Chaplain-General, Colonel-Commandant, Colonel-in-Chief, Colonel of the Regiment, Quarter-Master-General, etc.
That said, let us examine the history behind the nomenclature of ranks in the Nigerian Armed Forces. But before focusing on each service, let us identify current harmonized Nigerian military ranks side-by-side:
The post-colonial Nigerian Army (NA) traces its origins to 1863 when British Naval Lt. Glover established "Glover's Hausas." He used the small force of runaway slaves to mount expeditions to the hinterland primarily to protect British trade routes. From this humble beginning the West African Frontier Force later evolved and gave birth to the Nigerian Army. [http://www.gamji.com/nowa5.htm; http://www.nigerianarmy.net/briefhistory.htm] Badges of rank of the Nigerian Army are mostly patterned after those of the British army, except that the Nigerian eagle (from the Coat of Arms) replaces the British crown on the insignia of officers of the rank of Majors and above.
According to an official source, these are the current 'harmonized' ranks of the Nigerian Army (in ascending order):
· Lance Corporal
· Staff Sergeant
· Warrant Officer (Former WO Class 2 - roughly a Company Sergeant Major)
· Master Warrant Officer (Former WO Class 1 - roughly a Regimental Sergeant Major)
· Army Warrant Officer (roughly Sergeant Major of the Army or Chief Warrant Officer or Force RSM)*
*(More of an appointment than a rank)
· Second Lieutenant.
· Lieutenant Colonel
· Major General
· Lieutenant General
· Field Marshal
Most Nigerian Army badges of rank and insignia can be viewed at:
Let us now examine the historical basis and etymology of the words.
A Soldier is one who serves in the Army and fights for pay. The name originates from Latin word soldus, short for the classical Latin word solidus. Solidus was an ancient Roman coin used for paying soldiers.
The word Officer dates back to the kind of English spoken in the middle ages. It derived from the middle Latin word officarius and was first used in a military context in 1565. It takes root from office, a word which was first documented around 1250 and was derived from the classical Latin word officium meaning "service", "duty", "function", or "business." To be an 'officer', one had to be specially commissioned by the King or sovereign. The word commission dates back to 1344. It comes from the classical Latin word commissionem meaning "delegation of business." In other words the sovereign was delegating certain powers, authority and responsibility to those considered fit for it. Such a man it turns out, had to be legally defined as a "gentleman" meaning, according to English law of that era, that he had no regular occupation as a source of livelihood but lived instead on feudal office, church resources, rents or inheritance. When the term "officers and men" is used what it really implies is that some are qualified as 'gentlemen' while others are not. 'Gentlemen' could not be drafted off the streets but others could. The national order of precedence placed titled nobles first followed by untitled military officers (by commission) followed by "gentlemen entitled to bear arms." Given this social structure one can appreciate the concept of "non-commissioned" officers, men who rose through the ranks and were 'warranted' to lead other men based on experience and valor, but were nevertheless not considered socially fit for 'commission'. However, in feudal France and imperial Germany the distinction between 'noble' and 'officer' was inapparent because one had to be of noble birth in the feudal hierarchy to be qualified for 'commission' as an officer. Hence when reading the military history of Prussia and World War I and II Germany one often comes across officers and diplomats with names that include "von" this or "von" that. Examples include Otto von Bismark, General Helmuth von Moltke, Generalfeldmarschall Erick von Manstein (formerly Von Lewinsky), Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt, Generaloberst Juergen von Arnim, etc. The word 'von' distinguishes them from officers - like Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel or Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring - who were not of noble medieval aristocratic heritage.
The word Army was documented in 1386, and is derived from the Old French word armée, from the Latin word armata meaning "armed force," from the more classical Latin word armata, meaning "to arm," or "act of arming." Originally used in reference to land and sea expeditions it only began to be specifically used to refer to "land forces” in 1786.
Private - The earliest record of this word dates to 1384, derived from the classical Latin word privatus, meaning to "set apart, belonging to oneself" (rather than the state or feudal lord). The phrase Private soldier meaning "one below the rank of a non-commissioned officer" - also known as a common soldier - entered usage in 1579 when individual citizens gained the privilege of enlisting or entering private contracts to serve as private soldiers in army units. It later became known as privateer in 1664, from the term private man of war, as in volunteer or buccaneer.
It should be noted that various British military regiments and corps refer to their 'privates' by different names. Occasionally these names - which are not necessarily officially sanctioned - slip out in Nigerian newspaper stories or books pertaining to the Nigerian military. For example, a Guardsman is a private in a Guards regiment, a Gunner is a private in the Artillery regiment, and a Rifleman is a private in an Infantry rifle regiment. A Sapper is a private in the Engineer regiment; a Signalman is a private in the Signals Regiment, while a Trooper is a private in a Cavalry (or Recce) regiment. The word 'Sapper' comes from sap, meaning to "wear away." Recorded in 1598, it implied digging a trench toward enemy lines. It is derived from the french word saper, or sappe meaning a "spade," from the Latin word sappa.
A so-called 'Bombardier' is an Artillery Corporal. The name is derived from bombard, a 15th century term of French origin, from the word bombarder, also written bombarde, meaning "mortar" or "catapult." A 'Lance-Bombardier' is an Artillery Lance Corporal.
Lance-Corporal - The phrase 'Lance-Corporal ' is derived from the obsolete old Italian word lancepesade meaning "officer of lowest rank." It comes from lancia spezzata literally meaning a "broken lance" but used, somewhat derisively, to refer to an "old soldier." The term "Lance" entered documented use in the 12th century and is said to have been derived from the Old French word lance, from Latin lancea meaning "light spear." Some consider it of Celtic origin.
Corporal - The earliest record of this noun dates to 1579, reportedly derived from the Middle French word corporal, which was itself related to the Italian word caporale. "A corporal," is derived from capo "chief, head," which comes from the classical Latin word caput "head." A "Corporal" was described as such because he was in charge of a body of troops. Conceivably the term was linked to the Italian word corpo, also from the classical Latin word corps meaning, "body." Some authorities think corps (meaning Body) is the original source while the word caput (meaning Head) influenced its usage. Hence "Head of Body."
- The earliest record of this word dates back to the 12th century. It comes
from "servant,” from the Old French word sergent, from the medieval Latin
word servientum (from serviens) meaning "servant, vassal, soldier" (also
used in late Latin as "public official"). At that time they were servants to
Knights. In classical Latin the word servientem meant "serving," from
servire "to serve." The use of the term to describe a "non-commissioned
military officer" was first recorded in 1548. It should be noted that the rank
of Sergeant used to be a much more important rank than it is in
modern times. It was adopted by the Police in the UK in 1839, ie "Police
Sergeant." The compound term 'Sergeant-Major' - which now refers to the
senior enlisted soldier in a battalion, regiment, group, wing or
higher.formation - actually dates back to 1573.
Warrant Officer is discussed in detail below under 'Nigerian Navy' because the historical origin of the rank is naval. However, in the US, according to Paragraphs 1-5, Army Regulation 611-112, a "warrant officer" is "an officer appointed by warrant by the Secretary of the Army, based upon a sound level of technical and tactical competence. The warrant officer is the highly specialized expert and trainer who, by gaining progressive levels of expertise and leadership, operates, maintains, administers, and manages the Army’s equipment, support activities, or technical systems for an entire career."
- The word was first recorded around 1378, from the Old French word lieu
tenant meaning "substitute," literally a "placeholder," from lieu
"place" and tenant, from tenir meaning "to hold." The concept is
refers to a "substitute" for higher authority, such as in the phrase "I spoke to
one of his lieutenants ie the officer acting for his superior, or in his place.”
Over the years the rank has been further stratified into "3rd Lieutenant", "2nd
Lieutenant", "Sub-Lieutenant" and "1st Lieutenant", depending on the branch of
service or the country or era. The term is also used to qualify middle and
higher ranking officers who act as "substitutes" for their immediate superiors
in rank. Examples include Lieutenant Colonel (ie substitute for a
Colonel), Lieutenant Commander (ie substitute for a Navy Commander),
Lieutenant General (ie substitute for a General.) Many speakers of 'British
English' still pronounce the word 'lieutenant' as if it is 'leftenant'
rather than 'loo-tenant.' The reason is because as far back as the 14th
century there was an alternative word written as 'leftenant' which meant the
same thing. Its pronunciation has persisted through the centuries even though
it is now formally written as 'lieutenant' to reflect its French origins. For
many centuries, the company - commanded by a Captain - was the highest level of
tactical organization for troops. The deputy to the Captain was known as
"Captain-Lieutenant". When infantry companies evolved into battalions,
"Captain-Lieutenant" was shortened to Lieutenant. Throughout the 18th and 19th
centuries, Lieutenants remained Company 2ic (second-in-command). However, with
the advent of the 20th century, Captains ceded command of Companies to Majors,
and became Company 2ic, while Lieutenants became platoon commanders.
NOTE: In the British military, an Ensign was the lowest rank among commissioned officers in the infantry from the 18th century until 1871 when the rank was abolished and replaced by Second Lieutenant. It is still used as the lowest commissioned officer rank in the navies of some countries eg USA. The word derives from the Latin word insignia which means emblem or banner. Any warrior who carried his lord's ensign or flag became known as an ensign bearer. Later on it was shortened to Ensign.
Army Captain - Since 1375 the word Captain has been used to mean "one who stands at the head of others." It comes from the Old French word capitaine, from the Latin word capitaneus, meaning "chief," or capitaneus, which means "prominent” or “chief." As may be suspected this latter phrase comes from the classical Latin word caput (from capitis) meaning, "head." The use in a military context to refer to an "officer who commands a company" (ie the rank between Lieutenant and Major) began in 1567. At that time a company was the basic unit of military strength. The naval usage to mean an "officer who commands a man-of-war (a specific type of wooden sail ship)" dates back to 1554, but was later amplified to mean a "master or commander of a vessel of any kind" in 1704. See below for more details on 'Navy Captain.'
Major - The word entered documented usage in the 13th century and apparently comes from the classical Latin word major (from magjos), which is a shortened form of the word magnus meaning "large, great". "Major" derives from the medieval Latin word major meaning "chief officer, magnate, superior person," which was itself derived from the classical Latin word major, referring to "an elder, adult." The use as a noun in a military context began in 1643, as a shortened form of the French word sergent-major, (or greater sergeant) which was a much higher rank (ie an older servant or public official) then than it is today. In fact the Sergeant Major - at that time a field officer next in rank to the Lieutenant Colonel - was the second or third in command of a whole regiment or similar sized unit. His role was to form the companies into a solid regimental unit and keep them in proper formation for battle or route march. He also had administrative roles as an adjutant. The "Sergeant" component of "Sergeant-Major" was dropped in the 17th and 18th centuries as regiments became formalized as an administrative standard. The "Major" became the regimental staff officer while the "Sergeant-Major" continued in the role of "Head Sergeant" over enlisted men as it remains to this day, otherwise known as 'Warrant Officer'. It is a pivotal role. The saying that a General is only as good as his NCOs attests to this observation.
Lieutenant-Colonel - see below. (Deputy to the Colonel)
Colonel - The military word 'Colonel' - a modified version of the Italian word colonnella - was first formally recorded in 1548, although usage certainly precedes that date. It comes from the word coronell, derived from the middle French word coronel, which was also used in Spanish. Back in 1505, King Ferdinand of Spain reorganized his army and created twenty units - called colunelas or columns - out of part of it. Each colunela comprised 1000 to 1250 men broken down into companies. The commander was known as cabo de colunela, meaning head of the column, or Colonel. Because the new units were royal or "crown" units they were also called coronelias (after the Latin word corona, meaning crown) and their commanders were known as coronels. In fact any unit commanded by a Colonel was known as coronelias. In Italian, colonella meant the "commander of a column of soldiers at the head of a regiment," and is derived from the phrase compagna colonella meaning "little column company," from the classical Latin word columna, meaning "pillar." The French copied the idea later on in the 16th century, which then formed the basis of regimental reorganization in the 17th century. The Royal Army also adopted the regimental structure by copying the French. This is how the rank of "Colonel" entered the British Army. The English spelling was reportedly modified in 1583 to conform with Italian but the pronunciation - to this day - in commonwealth countries is kernal, adapted from the French/Spanish word coronel.
What is now known as "Colonel" used to be known more fully as "Colonel of the Regiment" back in the days when Colonels - usually men of high birth - owned and commanded regiments. At that time a regiment consisted of three wings - one commanded by the Colonel and the other two by his Lieutenant Colonel and Major. When, in the early part of the 18th century, regiments became fused as unified fighting battalions, Lieutenant-Colonels became substantive battalion (regiment) commanders while their Colonels assumed a more ceremonial and political role - reflected these days as Staff Appointments. In the 19th century, regiments later differentiated into multi-battalion units each with a Lt. Col. as Battalion commanding officer while the 'Colonel of the Regiment' - where the title still exists - handled policy and ceremonial matters.
Brigadier (One Star) - The military word 'Brigadier' (ie commander of a brigade) was documented in 1678 and is of French origin. The earlier word Brigade - as a subdivision or battle group of an army - entered usage in 1637, and comes from the French word brigade, derived from the Italian word brigata meaning "troop, crowd, gang." Brigata comes from brigare meaning a "brawl, fight," and is derived from the Celtic word briga which refers to "strife, quarrel." To place it in context, the related word 'brigand' which was first used around 1400, referred to a "lightly armed foot soldier," and was derived from the Old French word brigand, which meant a "foot soldier," as in the Italian word brigante meaning "trooper, skirmisher," from the word brigare. It was often used in the context of men who lived by pillaging, because at that time there was little difference between professional mercenary armies and armed criminal organizations.
Until 1922, the British Army used the term "Brigadier-General" but chose to revert to the less wordy term "Brigadier." This, therefore, is what it became known as in colonial and post-colonial Nigeria, as in most Commonwealth armies. But the Nigerian Army switched back to the American, Canadian and Israeli preferred term "Brigadier-General" (abbreviated Brig-Gen.) on October 1st, 1992. Beyond emphasizing the obvious - that Brigadiers are Generals - in our title conscious society, the operational rationale for the change is unclear.
Interestingly, the word 'Brigadier' can be further shortened to ‘Brig.’ which is also a colloquial rendition of the old word brigantine. Brigantines were small two-masted pirate sailing ships in the 16th century which, in the 18th and 19th Centuries, were later used as prison warships, which is why in certain armies to this day (e.g. the US Army) the word "Brig" still refers to a military jail or "Guard-Room." The United States avoids confusion between "Brig" as a jail and "Brig" as an abbreviation of 'Brigadier' by using the term "Brigadier-General" shortened to 'Brig-Gen.'
Lieutenant General.(Three Stars) - The commissioned officer rank just below a full General (Four stars), and immediately above a Major-General (Two Stars). (Deputy to - or substitute for - the General).
General - Although the word "General" is quite old, dating back to 1300 from the classical Latin word generalis meaning "relating to all, of a whole class", its use in the context of the "commander of an army" began in 1576 as a shortening of the word captain general. Such a Captain was considered to be in 'general' command of the "whole army" rather than part of it. Captain General is of French origin, from the phrase Capitaine Général. The Italian title Generalissimo (adopted by Josef Stalin of 20th century Russia and Chiang Kai-shek of 20th century China - later Taiwan) was documented in 1621 and is theoretically equivalent to Field Marshal. As it was in most parts of Africa, European nations prior to the 16th century only formed armies when they needed them. The permanent Army Commander was, therefore, the King. In crisis he would typically appoint a Captain-General to command. As the term "Colonel" became widely accepted some Kings referred to their commanders as "Colonel General" - a very senior rank that was widely used in WW2 Germany - just above a 4-star General and just below a Field Marshal - and is still used in countries like Russia. However, "Captain-General" has - since the 18th century - become known simply as "General." The Captains-General often got preoccupied with state and ceremonial matters and so the real operational Army Commander in the field was often his deputy - the Lieutenant-General. Lt. Generals were temporary ranks until the 17th century when they became formalized. On the other hand, the rank of "Sergeant Major General” was preserved for the chief administrative officer - or Chief of Staff - of the Army, whose tenure of office might even be limited to a specific campaign or war. The 'Sergeant' portion was, however, dropped in the 17th century, which is why the rank is known today as Major General. For example, under Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector, Britain was divided into eleven military districts each under the command of a Major General. The Colonels typically reported to the Sergeant Major General and Lieutenant General but in some instances of large army formations where there were just too many regiments, 'Brigades' were created - under Brigadiers - each comprised of three or more regiments (or battalions).
Nigeria's first Major General was JTU Aguiyi-Ironsi, promoted in 1965 when he became GOC, Nigerian Army. Nigeria's first four star General was General Yakubu C. Gowon, circa 1972. However, the first four-star Army General to be appointed by a civilian regime is General Alexander Ogomudia. Nigeria's first two Army Lieutenant Generals were Olusegun Obasanjo and Theophilus Danjuma, both in January 1976. However, the Nigerian Navy had already produced Vice-Admiral EA Wey who retired in 1975, equivalent to a Lt. General.
General of the Army: The term is peculiar to the United States military as its equivalent of 'Field Marshal.' The Nigerian military does not have such a rank.
Marshal - A baton is the traditional symbol of a Field Marshal. The word "Marshal" originated in 1218, and is said to derived from the old Frenchword mareschal, meaning a "stable officer, horse tender, groom." This in turn came from the Latin word mariscaluis, from the proto-germanic word markhaz meaning " horse" plus skalkaz meaning "servant." The phrase "Marshal" entered military usage in 1587 as a verb meaning, "to arrange for fighting." The rank was introduced into the British Army in 1736. It is not, as of now, formally recognized or used by the Nigerian military although - as in other commonwealth nations - it exists on paper. In other words no Nigerian has ever attained the rank. In most countries where it still exists, it is reserved for wartime or ceremonial post-retirement usage as a mark of honor.
Historically, a Field Marshal used to be subordinate to the Captain-General in the 16th and early 17th centuries. At the time his role was to control Army logistics - an appointment that is now known as Quarter-Master-General. During the 17th century 'Field Marshal ' became the highest British military rank (with Five Stars), superior to a Four-Star General. However, in 1995 it was phased out as a rank in peacetime Britain.
Sub-Saharan Africa has "produced" some Field Marshals, most notably the late Idi Amin Dada of Uganda.
On a more serious note, examples of Commonwealth countries that have officially recognized the rank of Field Marshal by establishment at one point in time or the other include South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan and India.
In Nigeria, the navy was created in 1958 from the defunct Nigerian Marine Department, originally formed in 1914 after the merger of the northern and southern nigerian marine detachments. The 'northern' and 'southern' marine detachments originated from the British Mercantile Marine - the armed merchant ships of British shipping and trading companies of the nineteenth century, which in collaboration with the Royal navy, helped to colonize Nigeria. In 1922, King George V changed the name of the British Merchant Service to the Merchant Navy, in recognition of its role in World War 1.
Until about four or so years ago when the Nigerian Armed Forces harmonized its rank structure, enlisted Nigerian naval seamen were ranked, in ascending order, as follows:
Chief Petty Officer
Warrant Petty Officer
In contrast, the modern Royal Navy has no "Ordinary Seaman" or "rating" or "rate." Nevertheless, historically, there used to be such a rank, equivalent to 'Able' rating until it was phased out. The following enlisted ranks currently exist in the RN:
Able Rate (Private)
Leading Rate (Corporal)
Petty Officer (Sergeant)
Chief Petty Officer (Staff Sergeant)
Warrant Officer (Warrant Officer, Class 1)
On the other hand, the present 'harmonized' NN rank structure (from bottom up) is as follows (according to an official source):
[Trainee] (Seaman Recruit in US parlance)
Master Warrant Officer
Navy Warrant Officer
Admiral of the Fleet
Most Nigerian Naval badges of rank and insignia can be viewed at:
Let us now examine the historical basis and etymology of the words.
The word Navy
dates back to the early part of the 14th century. It derives from the Old
French word navie meaning "fleet" or "ship," from the classical Latin
word navigia, which was the plural of of navigium meaning "vessel"
or "boat," from navis meaning "ship." What is now recognized as Navy
blue was the color of the British naval uniform. The word naval
came later, reportedly during the early part of the 15th century, derived from
the Old French word naval, which comes from the classical Latin word
navalis meaning "pertaining to a ship or ships."
The word Seaman is from an Old English word see-man, meaning someone whose job is out at sea. A Sailor - from the old English word saylor - is one whose job is involved with navigation or sailing. Rate comes from the 15th century French word rare meaning "value." The french word derives from rata in Latin, meaning "fixed (amount)," from the classical Latin word. rata meaning "fixed, settled." The use of the word in a verb tense as in "to estimate the worth or value of" began in 1599. In 1649 the Royal navy classified its ships into First-rate, Second-rate, Third-rate etc. on the basis of size and strength. Men were rated according to level of expertise and experience when they signed up for mercantile service. Those who were novices to seafaring were called landsmen. Those with rudimentary experience were called ordinary seamen, while established sailors with knowledge and some experience were called able seamen.
Differences in terminology of lower rung enlisted men (or ratings) between the Royal Navy (RN) and Nigerian Navy (NN) arise in part because of the part mercantile marine heritage of the Nigerian navy. But they also illustrate how the same name can mean different ranks in different countries, depending on policy and establishment. Ranks may seem to reflect the Royal merchant marine (mainly among junior enlisted men) and Royal navy (mainly among senior enlisted men and officers). But while the Royal Merchant marine has the formal entry rank of "apprentice" - derived from the Merchant Shipping Acts of 1823, 1835 and 1876 - the Royal Navy does not. A trainee in the modern NN is equivalent to what used to be known as a 'Landsman' in the RN of the 18th century. What might have passed for "apprentice" in the Merchant Marine, however, is now "Ordinary" in the modern Nigerian Navy. "Able” seamen also exist in the NN. To understand the difference between 'Ordinary' and 'Able' one must go back in time to Merchant Naval (rather than Royal Naval) history. Historically, an ordinary seaman in the merchant marine performed menial tasks like hauling ropes, climbing and manipulating sails, while occasionally taking the wheel. After three years of such apprenticeship he became an able seaman. An able seaman - short for 'able-bodied, or fully qualified seaman’ not only had to be intimate with every sail and rope, but also was expected to back up the carpenter. The lowest rank in the RN, however, is that of an Able rating which in the NN, is actually a mid-level rate.
The phrase Petty Officer dates back to the Old French word petit which means 'small'. "Small" or 'petty' officials existed in medieval England and were subordinate to more important 'big' officials like the Sheriff whom they assisted in rural administration. Against this background, senior officers on ancient British warships, eg the Gunner, Boatswain (in charge of general maintenance), Ship Master, Carpenter, Cook, etc. also had administrative assistants. Such 'petty' officials aboard the ships were known to the seamen as 'petty officers', reminiscent of petty officers in their rural villages and communes. Initially the 'petty’ officers, such as mast captains, gunner's mates, quartermasters, master-at-arms, etc. were temporary appointees of the ship's Captain. By the 17th century they began to assume more permanent roles but the title did not become an official rank in the Royal Navy until 1808.
Warrant Officer - The phrase 'Warrant Officer' consists of two words "warrant" and "officer." The term 'Warrant' is derived from the Old French word warant, which was used to refer to a defence, a protector, a guarantor or an authorization. Back in 1040 some English ports provided warships and crews - such as Master, Boatswain, Carpenter, Cook etc - to King Edward the Confessor. These private contractors were later "warranted" as officers by the British Admiralty (Royal Navy). As standing officers of the navy they were responsible for maintaining and sailing the ships while soldiers - then commanded by Lieutenants and Captains - were taken onboard and kept primarily to do whatever fighting was required, unencumbered by shipboard duties. The seamen considered themselves technocrats and looked down upon the soldiers.
In later centuries new shipboard roles were created and more 'officers' were warranted. These included the Purser, Gunner, Surgeon, Chaplain, Master-at-arms, Schoolmaster etc. It is from this naval background that the Army acquired the ranks of 'Warrant Officer' as the equivalent of a senior Sergeant or Sergeant Major, particularly for enlisted men who had put in many years of service but were not exactly material for formal commission as "Officers". Both the Royal and Nigerian Navies have both "Warrant Officer" and "Petty Officer" among enlisted ranks.
In the British military, an Ensign was the lowest rank among commissioned officers in the infantry from the 18th century until 1871 when the rank was abolished and replaced by Second Lieutenant. It is still used as the lowest commissioned officer rank in the navies of some countries eg USA, France. The word derives from the Latin word insignia which means emblem or banner. Any soldier who carried his master's ensign or flag became known as an 'Ensign bearer'. Later on it was shortened to 'Ensign'. For a while an Ensign actually commanded a 500-man body of troops known then as an "ensigne." None of the Nigerian military services uses this rank.
Midshipman - The term was first written in 1601, and is apparently termed as such because in the earlier days of naval warfare this officer was stationed amidships when on duty. The word, ‘amidships’, which was formalized in 1692, derives from 'amid' or 'amidst', much older terms that date back to 1391. 'Amid' comes from 'amidde' which in turn comes from 'on middan' meaning "in the middle," a 12th century word in Old English. Strategically located 'amidst' the men, Midshipmen were concerned with assisting Lieutenants control the lower level crew. However, if considered quality material, they could, on occasion, take charge of smaller vessels or captured ships. In modern days it is the lowest rank among commissioned officers in the navies of commonwealth nations, ie Second Lieutenant. However, this correlation is not always precise because in some countries the midshipman may be a pre-second lieutenant cadet (just above the rank of Warrant Officer) while the naval ranks of sub-lieutenant and lieutenant overlap the Army ranks of 2/Lt., Lt., and Captain. This arrangement reflects the days before formal military academies were established. At that time naval officers were trained at sea. A Midshipman under that system was a "cadet-apprentice" at beginning of his training program.
- The rank now known as "Lieutenant Commander" (equivalent to an Army Major)
used to be known in the Royal Navy as "Senior Lieutenant" until 1914 when it was
changed to Lieutenant Commander. The rank persists in the modern Nigerian navy.
(See Navy Captain below)
Commander - The word "Commander" dates back to 1300, and reportedly derives from the Old French word comander meaning "to order" or "to enjoin," from the Latin word commandare, itself derived from the classical Latin word commendare meaning "to recommend." Over time its meaning was influenced by another classical Latin word mandare meaning "to commit, entrust" (as in mandate). A 'commander' can, therefore, be thought of as having been mandated by the State to give orders to subordinates which they must obey. The military use as a noun began in 1552. But the word "Commander" entered official British naval use in 1674 as the phrase "Master and Commander." It was used to describe the officer directly under the Sailing Captain. On a smaller warship, however, the "Master and Commander" might well be in full command and could be addressed as "Captain." Depending on the size of ship, therefore, the Royal navy had up to three grades of Captain - of which the "Master and Commander" was the lowest at that time. In 1794, "Master and Commander" was shortened to "Commander" - a term which remains to this day in the Nigerian navy.
The related word
Commandant was documented in 1687, from the older French word Commandment
which dates back to about 1280. Another related word, commandeer,
dates back to 1881, and reportedly comes from Dutch derived Afrikaans (of
South Africa) as in kommandeeren meaning to command for military
service. Similarly the word commando is considered of
Afrikaans origin, meaning "a troop under a commander." However, there was a
prior usage in Portuguese meaning. "party commanded," as was the case when the
term was used in1809 during the Peninsula campaign. But from 1834, it was used
to describe military expeditions (ie commando operations) conducted by Boer
settlers against aboriginal inhabitants in South Africa. It re-appeared in the
WW2 writings of Winston Churchill (a veteran of the Boer war) as a description
of special operations to repel the threat of a German invasion of England.
Captains became part of the Royal Navy as far back as the 11th Century. Their
role was to command soldiers serving on ships primarily for combat duty, while
the ships were operated and commanded by Ship Masters, who had been 'warranted'
as Officers and were, therefore, known as "Warrant Officers." Later on, some
say as early as the 15th century, Infantry Captains and Lieutenants began
assuming shipboard functions. This process was complete by 1747 when they took
full command and control of warships. It was at this point that "Captain"
became an official Royal naval rank. But, somewhat confusingly, the word
'Captain' is also a title. Hence it became tradition to refer to the commander
of any ship as 'Captain'. Indeed, as a courtesy, to
this day, even the Lieutenant commanding a small patrol boat is addressed as
'Captain.' Historically, it was a very powerful position. A Captain
even had the judicial power of life and death over his crew. In 1748 the Royal
navy created three grades of Captain, depending on the size and complexity of
the ship commanded. The senior grade - so called "Post-Captain" - later became
known simply as "Captain" and is equivalent in rank to an Army Colonel. The
mid-grade later became "Commander" (equivalent to an Army Lt. Col.) while the
lowest grade became "Lieutenant Commander" (equivalent to an Army Major.).
Commodore - The naval term "Commodore" was formally documented in 1694, and is said to have derived from the dutch word kommandeur, meaning "having command over others" similar to the french term commandeur, which was itself a derivative of the Old French term comandeor. The Dutch reportedly created the Commodore appointment around 1652 during a naval war with England. Confronted with the need to find officers to command naval squadrons but unwilling to appoint more highly salaried Admirals, the commodore appointment was established at a pay scale said to be half that of an Admiral of that era. The title was introduced into the Royal Navy in 1689 after the Dutch leader, William of Orange, became King William III of England. It was later adopted by the Merchant marine as the formal title of the senior officer of a merchant fleet. Edet Akinwale Wey, Nigeria's first indigenous Chief of Naval Staff, held the title of 'Commodore' for many years but eventually retired in 1975 in the rank of Vice-Admiral. "Commodore" is the 'position' in the Navy above a Captain, but below a Rear Admiral. Its equivalent in the Army is a Brigadier-General.
In some navies of the world, Commodore is considered an "appointment" rather than a true rank, while in others it is a rank. Historically a Commodore was basically a Captain appointed temporarily to take charge of a detached naval squadron (including his own ship), for all practical purposes as a "junior Rear Admiral." In this context he was known originally as Commodore Second Class. If a Captain was awarded flag rank but did not also have to command his own ship he was known as Commodore First Class because he had a Flag Captain under his command. The Royal navy retained the position of "Commodore Second Class", as "Commodore" while "Commodore First Class" became "Rear-Admiral." In the USN, however, the next rank after "Captain" is "Rear Admiral (lower half)." After many years of resisting the term "Admiral" because of its royal connotations, the USN rank of "Rear-Admiral" was first authorized by the US Congress on July 16, 1862, under the pressure of Civil War expansion. From an American point of view, beginning from the days of the revolutionary war, the word "Commodore" was an honorary title for Captains in command of two or more ships operating together. They might also be Captains charged with other major responsibilities. In 1862, however, it became an official command rank and remained so until 1899 when it was reserved as a title for retired civil war era Captains. Under administrative pressure of World War II expansion, however, it was transiently resuscitated as a temporary rank in 1943. In 1982, Congress authorized a new rank of "Commodore Admiral" (sort of like "Brigadier-General). However, a year later it reverted to simply "Commodore". But in 1986 the term disappeared again and was replaced by "Rear Admiral (lower half)" as it is known today. (See Admiral below).
- The word Admiral goes as far back as 1205, from the Arabic title
amir-ar-rahl meaning "chief of the transport" or amir-al-bahr meaning
commander of the seas - an officer in the Mediterranean fleet. The term comes
from amir meaning "leader." Many Nigerians will recognize the etymologic
similarity between the phrase Amirul-Hajj - the leader of Hajj delegation
(pilgrimage) - and the anglicized word "Admiral." Crusaders to the Middle East
may have learned the phrase during various meetings with Arabs, perhaps even as
early as the 11th century. Sicilian and Genoese seamen reportedly adapted it as
"amiral" while the French and Spanish reportedly used similar ranks for their
seafarers. It evolved into "admyrall" and later "admiral" by the 16th century.
The Nigerian Navy's first Admiral was Augustus Aikhomu who apparently got his promotion to that rank after retirement. The first active-duty naval officer to be promoted Admiral was Ibrahim Ogohi.
NIGERIAN AIR FORCE
Following two years of quiet preparations, the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) was formally established by an act of Parliament in 1964. Initial training and military acculturation occurred under the tutelage of the Ethiopian, Canadian, Indian and German Air Forces. Until 1976, it used Army-style ranks. With minor modification, it now uses Royal Air Force rank titles.
The present 'harmonized' NAF rank structure (from bottom up) is as follows [http://www.naf.gov.ng]:
Master Warrant Officer
Air Warrant Officer
Air Vice Marshal
Air Chief Marshal
Marshal of the Air Force
Most Nigerian Air Force badges of rank and insignia can be viewed at:
Let us now examine the historical basis and etymology of the words.
The Royal Air Force (RAF) - after which the Nigerian Air Force rank structure has been patterned since 1976 - was established in 1918 and, like the NAF, initially used Army ranks. Lt-Gen. Sir David Henderson derived its current rank system from a combination of Royal Naval and British Army ranks, among other sources. The new rank structure was adopted on August 1st, 1919. His initial proposal for RAF officer ranks was:
· Air Marshal
This was then modified to:
· Flight Ardian
· Squadron Ardian
· Wing Ardian
· Air Marshal
However, alternative rank titles - which is what we use to this day - were later created in the face of opposition from the Army, Navy and War Office. Nevertheless, the similarity between senior air force and naval ranks on one hand, and junior air force and army ranks on the other, persists. For example, a one-star General rank is an Air 'Commodore', (as in Navy Commodore) but higher ranks use "Air Marshal" (derived from the Army word "Marshal") instead of 'Admiral' which is clearly of ancient marine heritage. Hence, Air Vice-Marshal, Air Marshal, and Air Chief Marshal refer to two, three, and four star Generals, respectively. [The exception to this exists in countries that have well-developed Naval Aviation forces in which case aviators may wear Naval ranks]. The first Air Vice-Marshal in NAF history was Air Vice Marshal John N. Yisa-Doko, Chief of Air Staff from 1975 - 80. The first Air Marshal (Lt. Gen.) was the late Ibrahim Alfa, Chief of Air Staff from 1984 - 90. No officer of the Nigerian Air Force has attained or surpassed the rank of Air Chief Marshal (4-Star General).
The air force equivalent
of a Naval Captain is a Group Captain (ie Army Colonel). The NAF equivalent of
a Naval Commander is a Wing Commander. The NAF equivalent of a
Naval Lieutenant Commander is a Squadron Leader (ie Army Major).
An NAF Flight Lieutenant is equivalent to an Army Captain or Navy
Lieutenant. An NAF Flying Officer is equivalent to an Army
Lieutenant or Navy Sub-Lieutenant. An NAF Pilot Officer is
equivalent to an Army Second Lieutenant or a Navy Midshipman (where it exists).
Enlisted NAF ranks - in order of declining status - are Air Warrant Officer,
Master Warrant Officer, Warrant Officer, Flight Sergeant, Sergeant, Corporal,
Lance Corporal and Aircraftman/woman. The ancient Naval and Army origins of
"Warrant", "Sergeant", "Lance", and "Corporal" have previously been discussed.
M B Barrass. Air of authority - A history of RAF organisation http://www.rafweb.org/ranks1.htm
Boatner, Mark. Military Customs and Traditions. Westport, Ct.: Greenwood Press, 1976.
Bowyer, C, History of the RAF. Hamlyn, 1977.
British and US Military Ranks: http://www.av8.org/av8fst-uk/ranks.html
British Royal Navy Crews. http://www.napoleonguide.com/navy_crews.htm
Douglas Harper. Online
Mariners (Merchant Navy) http://www.mariners-l.co.uk/UKMerchantNavyIndex.html
Forces of Britain, The Empire and Commonwealth.
Military Rank, Operations, & Feudal Hierarchy. http://www.friesian.com/rank.htm
Peter Monks. Ranks and Professions, Merchant Navy. http://www.mariners-l.co.uk/GenBosunRankMN.html
Mumford, JG. Wartime Merchant Navy - Links and Sources. http://www.gordonmumford.com/m-navy3.htm
Nautical Terms, Phrases & Trivia. http://docmeyer.freeservers.com/trivia.htm
New Salary Structure for (Nigerian) Armed Forces. PostExpress 06/17/2000
Oliver R: Why is the Colonel Called "Kernal"? The Origin of the Ranks and Rank Insignia Now Used by the United States Armed Forces
US Navy ranks and insignia, officers: http://www.chinfo.navy.mil/navpalib/ranks/officers/o-rank.html
US Army ranks and insignia, enlisted:https://www-perscom.army.mil/tagd/tioh/rank/erank.htm
US Army ranks and insignia : http://www.morehead-st.edu/colleges/education/military/rank.html
US Marine Corps, ranks and insignia: http://www.usmc.mil/rank.nsf/ranks
US Military ranks: http://www.sjsu.edu/depts/AFROTC/cadet/ranks.html
Weekley, Ernest. An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, London: J. Murray, 1921.
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This page was last updated on 10/27/07.